Leading with an eye on the beef industry’s next generation

Kelly Smith-Fraser's NuHaven Cattle Company a testament to a long family history of beef producers

Kelly Smith-Fraser’s deep roots in agriculture helped develop her present leadership role in the Canadian beef industry. The vice-chair of Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) and president of the Canadian Maine-Anjou Association, Smith-Fraser’s path in the cattle business was shaped by the previous generations, a legacy she continues on her family’s operation, NuHaven Cattle Company of Pine Lake, Alta.

Her family’s story in the beef industry began when her grandfather established Poplar Haven Farms, a mixed beef and grain farm at Wimborne, Alta., in the early 1940s. Her late father, Gary Smith, and his two brothers then became involved in running the farm, sharing their love of agriculture with their own families.

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The introduction of the continental breeds to Canada in the 1960s signalled a turning point for Poplar Haven Farms. After trying some of these breeds in their herd, Smith-Fraser’s grandparents travelled to France to see the Maine-Anjou breed in person, and her grandfather liked what he found. “He liked their milking capabilities, he liked their docility, he liked how they finish. He was really impressed with that breed,” she said.

With that, the Smiths became some of the first Canadian producers involved in the Maine-Anjou breed. “They imported some of the original semen and bulls into Canada, and they started AI-ing a lot of our heifers back to Maine-Anjou,” said Smith-Fraser. Her father and an uncle were particularly interested in the purebred sector and held positions in the Alberta and Canadian Maine-Anjou associations. Growing up, Smith-Fraser and her brother Guy exhibited Maine-Anjou cattle at shows such as Red Deer’s Westerner Days, Farmfair International and Canadian Western Agribition.

With three families involved in Poplar Haven Farms and many of the next generation eager to start a career in agriculture, the Smiths decided to amicably part ways in the mid-1990s. The farm was split into three separate operations, and Smith-Fraser’s family moved to their present location to start NuHaven Cattle Company. Prior to moving, they had pasture land at Pine Lake, and its green, rolling hills made it an attractive location to raise cattle.

After earning her degree in marketing at Texas Tech University and working off the farm, Smith-Fraser was drawn back to ranching on a full-time basis. In addition to running the ranch with her father and brother, she worked for the family’s livestock exporting company at times. The opportunity to work with her father was especially meaningful for her. “It was fun getting to ranch beside my dad and get to learn a lot from him, and he was an integral part of the operation,” she said. “It was kind of a unique relationship, being father and daughter and working beside each other, and I loved it.”

Currently, her mother Christine Smith, is still actively involved in the operation. Smith-Fraser’s husband, Scott Fraser, works in the oil field, and they have a six-year-old daughter Aubrey.

The NuHaven herd consists of purebred Maine-Anjou females and percentage cattle, known as MaineTainers, which are primarily Angus outcrosses in this case. After downsizing to 80 head a few years ago, they have increased their herd to about 120 females and are considering new options for further expansion.

The NuHaven herd consists of purebred Maine-Anjou females and percentage cattle, known as MaineTainers, which are primarily Angus outcrosses.
photo: Piper Whelan

They begin calving in early March, keeping pairs close to home in the calving barn and later in nearby pastures. Smith-Fraser synchronizes about half of their females to be AI’d around the first week of June, timed to calve a couple of weeks after the cows bred by natural exposure.

Bull calves are weaned in October, while steers and heifers are weaned during the first week of November. Smith-Fraser’s “secret ingredient” for a successful weaning is DeStress, a product that is generally fed the night before weaning to help calm the cattle down. “My calves look great going on and off the truck. They bawl less. They’re obviously less stressed when they get to the auction mart. My cows at home bawl less. It’s a lot easier on them and easier on my fence lines,” she said. “The calves that stay here, I find that they actually do get on to feed a lot sooner.”

In addition to selling yearling bulls by private treaty throughout the winter, Smith-Fraser sells a number of prospect steers and heifers to junior show competitors and 4-H members in the fall. Frozen genetics play a role in producing these calves, as well as in their breeding program as a whole. “I’ve recently started going back into flushing a couple of our cows each year, just trying to raise a more consistent club calf,” she said. “I want them to be sound, I want them to be… what I find eye appealing, and I try very hard to put the right kind of calf into the right junior’s hands.” Much of the Maine-Anjou and club calf semen they use is imported from the United States, with guidance from Smith-Fraser’s brother, who lives in Oklahoma. “I hand it off to him, he does all the research on what bulls for me to use and sends me a list.”

Smith-Fraser’s enthusiasm for the Maine-Anjou breed hasn’t diminished over the years. “It’s a breed that I’m proud to be involved in,” she said. In recognizing the changes that the breed has undergone in the last 50 years, she appreciates the characteristics that originally caught her grandparents’ eyes. While some breeders continue to raise red and white fullbloods, NuHaven, like many Canadian Maine-Anjou breeders, now raises mostly solid black cattle. Among the traits she loves about the breed are its docility, milking ability and style.

“It’s the eye appeal — they’re the kind of calves that we like to raise. I feel really strongly that you have to like what you go out to look at, and I really like what I see out there.”

The breed’s presence in Canada isn’t as large as some, and Smith-Fraser explained that a lack of awareness is a challenge facing Maine-Anjou breeders. “We have a really hard time convincing bull customers that they’re not the breed that their grandfathers had heard about and didn’t use back in the 1970s,” she said. “We have calving ease bulls, our calves do well on feed, their rate of gain and conversion rates are at the top of the list. We just don’t have the well-known market name as what we’d like to have.”

Crossbreeding is a major opportunity for the breed, she noted. “Our halfbloods — our half Maine, half Angus cattle, or other half Maine, half Simmental cattle — are phenomenal. They cross really well with other breeds and produce the kind of cows that we all want to see.”

Smith-Fraser believes that the youth involved in the breed will help to develop its numbers and standing in Canada, beginning by playing on its formidable show ring presence. “If you go to a junior show, you’ll see just as many or more Maine-Anjou animals entered in the Maine-Anjou classes than the big breeds.”

A seat at the table

“I was at a time in my life where I had the time to commit and the time to give back to the industry that has given so much to our family,” she explained. “I felt I had a voice and I had some experiences that I could contribute, and as my dad had always told me, if you’re not sitting at the table, somebody else is, and you may not like what they have to say.”

Her time in this role comes at a crucial moment for ABP, as the organization plans to hold a plebiscite this fall on a possible return to a non-refundable check-off structure. Smith-Fraser noted that ABP delegates continually hear from producers who want a more secure model of funding. “Since the check-off became refundable, producers have told us at our fall meetings that they would like to see the check-off return to non-refundable. We have votes, we have resolutions, we have discussions each year at our fall producer meetings throughout the province, and that’s what we’ve heard.”

In light of this, Smith-Fraser’s current goal is for ABP to spread the “message about where your check-off dollars go and how the organizations are funded, and how we as an organization can make our industry stronger.” Part of this message has to do with how the funding benefits individual operations in areas such as research.

Accordingly, ABP is working with the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association to strengthen the efforts of both associations to benefit the industry. The two organizations have formed a partnership known as the New Era Beef Industry Agreement, which would see them split the levy for each animal sold in Alberta.

“We’ve developed some strategies in how we want to move forward and to grow our efficiencies, and to make sure that we’re working cohesively on different projects, so we’re not seeing the duplication that we’ve been seeing over the years since the check-off became refundable,” she said. “We both have a strong voice and there’s a definite advantages to both organizations, and we’re better off together.”

The promise of the next generation

With her eyes on the future of her family’s operation, Smith-Fraser is focused on building her herd from within and raising high-quality calves she can be proud of. “We’ve retained a lot of replacements over the last few years, and I’m quite excited to see the calves that are coming out,” she said. NuHaven is also hosting a new sale this fall. “We’re constantly looking at new methods of marketing our animals and just trying new genetics, seeing what works and what doesn’t.”

One of their latest diversification efforts is introducing Simmental genetics to their breeding program. “We’ve imported a new herd sire from the States, and I’m walking a Simmental bull on some of our Maine and Maine/Angus-cross cows, just to bring in a different cross, and then they’ll get bred back Maine-Anjou.”

Raising calves that appeal to the show circuit is another area of interest for Smith-Fraser. “In the next few years I’d really like to see us developing some more show steers and show heifers. I have a six-year-old daughter that’s taken an interest in the show cattle, and she’s already picking out what her next ones will be. She’s been showing a heifer this year that she’s quite proud of.”

With her daughter at the beginning of her junior show days, Smith-Fraser is enthusiastic about the quality of programming for youth competing in livestock shows. This includes the ample opportunities to develop a variety of useful skills and for scholarships, trips and friendships. “I’m amazed at the opportunities they have,” she said. “I think that it’s going to be amazing to see where these kids take us.”

Developing the next generation of cattle producers is close to Smith-Fraser’s heart, and she believes it’s vital to focus on the role that youth will play beyond the beef operation. “I think what we need to remember is just because some of our children aren’t coming home to work on the farm and to ranch beside Mom and Dad, those kids are going to become nutritionists, ag bankers, agronomists,” she said. “We need those kids with the first-hand experience, growing up on the farm and ranch, being able to help advise us and our children that do stay on the ranch… I think that’s the succession of our industry, to see that these kids are coming back into the industry in an expertise role.”

It’s not surprising, then, that the promise of youth in the beef industry is something that keeps Smith-Fraser excited about being part of the industry, especially when considering her daughter’s future. “I want to be able to see that she’s able to come back and raise cattle,” she said. It doesn’t end at the junior level — she praises the programs geared toward learning and professional development for producers in their twenties and thirties as well. “We have a great wealth of knowledge that’s coming up, and I’m excited to see what is going to happen in the next 10 years, 20 years.”

About the author

Field editor

Piper Whelan is a field editor with Canadian Cattlemen. She grew up on a purebred, Maine-Anjou ranch near Irricana, Alta., and previously wrote for Top Stock, Western Horse Review, and various beef breed publications.

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